A Tasty Spaghetti Ragu: A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE (MGM 1974)

James Coburn, at the height of his career, moved from American movies to international productions with his trademark elegance and ease. He worked for the Maestro of Spaghetti Westerns Sergio Leone in 1972’s DUCK, YOU SUCKER , then appeared for Leone’s former Assistant Director Tonino Valerii in A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE, a revenge tale disguised as a caper film that costars Telly Savalas and Spaghetti icon Bud Spencer. The version I viewed was the truncated American cut, missing about a half hour of footage and released stateside in 1974. If the complete version is as good as this one, I need to hunt it down and see it!

The Civil War-set drama finds Coburn as Col. Pembroke, recently escaped from a Confederate prison after surrendering Fort Holman without a fight to Rebel Major Ward (Savalas) and his forces. Fort Holman is a crucial piece of real estate to the Union Army, and Pembroke aims to redeem himself by taking it back, recruiting a scurvy bunch of reprobates about to be hung for their crimes – murderers, rapists, and horse thieves all. Pembroke and his Dirty Half-Dozen are initially at odds until he tells them the real reason they’re attacking the fort – a cache of hidden Confederate gold worth half a million dollars!

The first hour builds slowly, as the motley crew make their way to Fort Holman and Eli (Spencer) is sent in to infiltrate the fort and pave the way for Pembroke’s band of bandits. Then the action picks up considerably, as the attack turns into a bloody massacre and Pembroke’s true motive is revealed (and no, I’m not going to spoil it for you!). Valerii and his cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa capture the beautiful vistas of Spain’s Almeria desert (which Leone used extensively in his films), and Fort Holman itself was originally built for Burt Kennedy’s THE DESERTER. The terrific score is by… no, not Ennio Morricone, but Riz Ortolani, the Italian jazz composer who broke through in films with MONDO CANE (introducing the hit song “More”), and whose impressive resume includes scores for CASTLE OF BLOOD, ANZIO, THE MCKENZIE BREAK, THE VALACHI PAPERS, DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING, and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST.

Director Tonino Valerii (1934-2016)

Valerii had quite an interesting career, writing the screenplays for Italian horrors TERROR IN THE CRYPT (with Christopher Lee) and THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH (starring Barbara Steele) before assisting Leone on A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE . Making his debut in the director’s chair with 1966’s A TASTE FOR KILLING, he guided Lee Van Cleef and Guiliano Gemma in DAY OF ANGER, helmed the coming of age tale A GIRL CALLED JULES, the giallo MY DEAR KILLER, the poliziotesco GO GORILLA GO, and the Franco Nero action vehicle SAHARA CROSS. His most famous film is MY NAME IS NOBODY , starring Terence Hill and Henry Fonda, on which Leone himself allegedly directed a few scenes and contributed some second unit work.

Most Spaghetti Western aficionados sing the praises of NOBODY, while considering A REASON TO LIVE, A REASON TO DIE to be a second-tier entry in the genre. I’d disagree; I think it’s a very underrated and well put together film that’s definitely worth a look, even in the edited version. And if you happen to run across a complete, uncut version of the film… let me know!

Christmas With 007: ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (United Artists 1969)

(Okay, so technically ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE isn’t a Christmas Movie. But neither is DIE HARD, though many consider it to be because it’s set during the holiday season. Well, so is this film, and it’s as close as you’ll get to a James Bond Christmas Movie, so I’m gonna go with that!)

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE was the first Bond film to not star Sean Connery . Instead, newcomer George Lazenby was given the plum role of 007. Lazenby was a model whose claim to fame was a British TV commercial for a chocolate bar; despite having virtually zero acting experience, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli offered him an audition and gave him the part. Critics of the time derided Lazenby’s performance, more due to the fact that he wasn’t Sean Connery than anything else. Looking back on the film, he isn’t bad at all; he handles the action, romance, and quips more than adequately, and makes Bond all-too human. Perhaps that’s the trouble, that they wanted their super-spy to be super, but personally I think Lazenby made a fine Bond, and wish he’d continued in the part.

(courtesy ‘Art of the Title’ website)

Along with humanizing 007, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE gives us a back-to-basics approach, with more emphasis on plot and less gadgets and gimmicks. This is evident in the pre-credits sequence, where Bond (whose new face isn’t fully shown until around the halfway mark) saves a young woman from drowning herself in the ocean, then is attacked by and fights off some unknown assailants (and gets off the witty line “This never happened to the other fellow”). There’s no bombastic theme song; what we get instead is a montage of the previous Bond films inside a stylized martini glass, as if to state “out with the old, in with the new”!

The young woman is Contessa Teresa di Vincenzo, who prefers to be called Tracy (“Teresa was a saint; I am not”), who turns out to be the daughter of European crime boss Draco, who may have information leading to the location of Bond’s nemesis Blofeld. But Bond is taken off the Blofeld case by M (still played by Bernard Lee ), and the licenced-to-kill agent angrily submits his resignation. The loyal Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell ) arranges instead for Bond to be granted two weeks leave. Bond travels to Portugal to meet Draco, who thinks Bond would make a good match for Tracy, and uses his information as leverage.

Bond and Tracy fall in love for real, and 007 then goes back on Blofeld’s trail, disguising himself as a genealogist to infiltrate the SPECTRE chief’s Swiss Alps mountaintop lair. Blofeld is posing as a benevolent research scientist seeking to cure the world’s allergies, and his patients are twelve beautiful women – Bond’s in heaven! But heaven can wait, as he discovers Blofeld’s fiendish plan to use the girls as his “Angels of Death” and spread his deadly “Virus Omega”, which will cause infertility among all species of life on Earth and the destruction of the human race unless his demands are met…

There’s no lacking on the action front, with exciting sequences like Bond’s daring escape down the mountain on skis while pursued by Blofeld and his minions, an icy stock car race in Tracy’s Mercury Cougar XR7, Bond vs. Blofeld in a bobsled chase, and Draco’s team assault on Blofeld’s lair. First time director Peter Hunt had been an editor on several Bond films and was more than familiar with the territory. Editing chores were taken over by John Glen, who’d eventually move to the director’s chair for five Bonds (the final three with Roger Moore, two with Timothy Dalton).

Diana Rigg  was no stranger to the spy game, having spent three seasons as Mrs. Emma Peel on TV’s THE AVENGERS. Diana makes a great Bond girl as Tracy, the only woman he’d ever fallen in love with to this point, and can hold her own in the action department (*SPOILER ALERT* her death by Blofeld’s assassin after her wedding to James comes as a sad but necessary shock, as Bond must always remain a man alone). A pre-KOJAK Telly Savalas is an elegantly evil Blofeld (though my favorite is still Charles Gray ). Italian star Gabrielle Ferzetti (L’AVVENTURA, WE STILL KILL THE OLD WAY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) is equally elegant as the cultured crime lord Draco. Among those “Angels of Death” you’ll find Julie Ege (Hammer’s CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT), Joanna Lumley (ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS’s Patsy), Catherine Schell (SPACE: 1999’s Maya), and Angela Scoular (the ’67 Bond spoof CASINO ROYALE).

As for George Lazenby, he marched to his own drum, and has had a varied career, including the Italian giallo WHO SAW HER DIE?, some kung-fu films for producer Raymond Chow, and the French soft-core EMMANUELLE series. His post-Bond work doesn’t amount to much, but he’s happy. We’re happy too, if only for his one appearance as Her Majesty’s Greatest Secret Agent. I’ll leave you with James & Tracy’s love theme, “We Have All the Time in the World”, sung by jazz legend Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong:

Boldly Going Indeed! : PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (MGM 1971)

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Gene Roddenberry’s post-STAR TREK career  had pretty much gone down the tubes. The sci-fi series had been a money loser, and Roddenberry wasn’t getting many offers. Not wanting to be pigeonholed in the science fiction ghetto, he produced and wrote the screenplay for PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, a black comedy skewering the sexual revolution, with French New Wave director Roger Vadim making his first American movie. The result was an uneven yet entertaining film that would never get the green light today with its theme of horny teachers having sex with horny high school students!

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All-American hunk Rock Hudson was in the middle of a career crisis himself. After spending years as Doris Day’s paramour in a series of fluffy comedies, his box office clout was at an all-time low. Taking the role of Tiger McGrew, the guidance counselor/football coach whose dalliances with the cheerleading squad leads to murder, Rock goes way out of his comfort zone portraying a sexual predator and gives one of his best screen performances. Tiger’s a family man, Masters level psychologist, and first class scoundrel not above killing the girls he seduces when they get too close, and Rock gets to show off his acting chops to good advantage.

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A subplot involves John David Carson making his debut as Ponce de Leon Harper, a student with sexual hangups who’s taken under the wing (and covers!) of substitute teacher Miss Smith, played by Angie Dickinson . Angie is always good, but Carson’s kind of stiff as the kid with a perpetual hard-on (pun intended!), which is a shame, because the character’s central to the film. His career never really took off, and he was relegated to mainly low-budget schlock like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE after this.

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The cast is peppered with Familiar Faces, such as Telly Savalas as a police detective out to solve the high school murder spree, Roddy McDowell as the school’s principal, Keenan Wynn as a bumbling local cop, and STAR TREK’s James Doohan as Telly’s assistant. Barbara Leigh, best known for almost starring in a Hammer movie adaptation of the horror comic VAMPIRELLA (which sadly never got off the ground), plays Tiger’s loving but unsuspecting wife. Another STAR TREK vet William Campbell appears, as does funny Susan Tolsky (of TV’s HERE COME THE BRIDES). The “Pretty Maids” are all pretty hot, including cult actress Joy Bang, Gretchen Burrell, Aimee Eccles, JoAnna Cameron (later Saturday morning superhero Isis!), Brenda Sykes, Topo Swope (daughter of Dorothy McGuire, now a top talent agent), and Gene’s daughter Dawn Roddenberry.

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There are underlying themes of oppression, non-conformity, and even racism in the film, but let’s be honest, it’s basically about sex! There’s lots of nudity, befitting a 70’s flick, and some may find it creepy seeing Rock Hudson getting down with all these nubile young chicks. As I said earlier, the film couldn’t be made in today’s repressive climate, but back then it was anything goes. I don’t know how you feel about it, all I can tell you if I was a horny 17-year-old back then, I’d have screwed Angie Dickinson’s brains out, too!

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW didn’t do well at the box office, and Roddenberry returned to TV and sci-fi, supplementing his income with talking about STAR TREK on the college lecture circuit. The show had developed a cult following by then due to its popularity in syndication, and by the end of the decade STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE hit the big screen. The voyages of the Starship Enterprise will always be Roddenberry’s lasting legacy, but if you’ve got a taste for black comedy, check out his twisted PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW.

 

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE DIRTY DOZEN (MGM 1967)

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Happy Veteran’s Day and thank you to all who’ve served!

One of my favorite WW2 movies to watch is THE DIRTY DOZEN. This rousing all-star epic, flavored with superb character actors and moments of humor, was a box office success and remains a perennial favorite among action lovers. The formula (a band of military misfits unite to battle the enemy) became so popular it’s been rehashed several times in several ways, but none have ever come close to having the panache of director Robert Aldrich’s lively original.

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Army Major Reisman is given the assignment of whipping twelve convicts into fighting shape and taking on what amounts to a suicide mission: conduct a raid behind enemy lines on a chateau where high ranking Nazi officers assemble for R’n’R. Reisman’s a rebellious sort (“very short on discipline”) with contempt for his higher-ups, especially rival Col. Breed. One of the officers calls him “the most ill-mannered, ill-disciplined officer I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet”, but General Worden believes Reisman’s the man for the job. The Major’s introduced to his new charges at prison. There’s cocky Chicago hood Franko, gentle giant Posey, ex-officer Wladislaw, religious nut Maggot, dimwitted Pinkley, and eight other murderers, rapists, and thieves. Reisman and his right-hand man Sgt. Bowren are to take this “dirty dozen” and turn them into a team.

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The deal is the men will get their sentences commuted if successful, but if one of them tries to escape, they all go back to face the hangman. Franko tries some initial pushback, but is brought into line by his peers. The cons learn to depend on each other, though Army psychiatrist Kinder considers them “the most twisted bunch of psychopaths” he’s ever seen. Breed almost gets the mission quashed after being embarrassed by the troop, but they’re given a chance when the dozen capture Breed’s squad during maneuvers. Feeling they’re ready to roll, Reisman leads his men on the mission in an exciting, grisly 45 minute climax. Only three make it back, and Wladislaw is given the last word: “Killin’ generals could get to be a habit with me”.

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WW2 vet Lee Marvin leads the testosterone fueled cast as Reisman, a good soldier who dislikes authority. John Cassavetes was Oscar nominated for his role as Franko, the defiant mobster who becomes a hero. Charles Bronson (Wladislaw) was an old hand at these all-star action films (THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), and 70s solo superstardom was just down the road for him. Donald Sutherland  (Pinkley) adds another goofy characterization to his resume, and 70s stardom awaited him, too. Telly Savalas, pre-KOJAK, is slimeball Maggot, while TV’S CHEYENNE Clint Walker plays big Posey. Ex-NFL star Jim Brown makes his film debut, and his “broken play” run while setting off the hand grenades is one of the action genre’s most iconic scenes. Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, George Kennedy, and Robert Webber are on hand as members of the “big Army brass” (to borrow a line from WW2 vet Ed Wood). Richard Jaeckel is the loyal Sgt. Bowren, and singer Trini Lopez appears as Jiminez (and even gets to sing “The Bramble Bush”). Besides Marvin, actors Borgnine, Ryan, Webber, Kennedy, Savalas, and Walker all served their country during World War Two.

Finally, in answer to that age-old barstool trivia question, “Name the members of THE DIRTY DOZEN”, here’s the lineup:

  • Franko: John Cassavetes
  • Vladek: Tom Busby
  • Jefferson: Jim Brown
  • Pinkley: Donald Sutherland
  • Gilpin: Ben Carruthers
  • Posey: Clint Walker
  • Wladislaw: Charles Bronson
  • Sawyer: Colin Maitland
  • Lever: Stuart Cooper
  • Bravos: Al Mancini
  • Jiminez: Trini Lopez
  • Maggot: Telly Savalas

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